Wheelchair Curling: A (short) Paralympics Primer

The Wheelchair Curling competition is underway at the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.

Wheelchair curling made its Paralympics debut in Torino in 2006. The sport is open to male and female athletes who have a physical impairment in the lower half of their body, including spinal-cord injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and double-leg amputation. The competition mixed – teams include both male and female athletes.

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Two-time Paralympian and U.S. Army veteran Patrick McDonald (Madison, Wis.) will lead Team USA. The team, which includes David Palmer (Mashpee, Mass.), Jimmy Joseph (New Hartford, N.Y.), Penny Greely (Green Bay, Wis.), and Meghan Lino (East Falmouth, Mass.) is seeking USA's first-ever Paralympics medal in wheelchair curling.

Team USA started 0-2 with losses to Slovakia and Korea, before capturing their first win against Norway. They will also compete against Canada, China, Finland, Great Britain, Russia, and Sweden. After the conclusion of the round robin, the top four teams will advance to the semifinals.

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Just like able-bodied curling, wheelchair curling consists of two teams playing against each other, each pushing stones in turn down the ice towards a series of painted concentric circles called “the house.” The object is to get the stones as close to the center of the rings as possible.

Unlike able-bodied curling, there is no sliding during the delivery of the stone. Players deliver the stone from a stationary position in front of the front hog line -- not all the way back in the hack. A handle is attached to the stone to deliver and release it and players may use their hands to throw the stone or an extender cue that can be attached to the handle of the stone. There is also no sweeping or other effort to influence the path of the stone once the shot begins.

“And yet we still yell at the stone to try to influence its performance,” explained Patrick McDonald, the skip for Team USA at the Paralympics. “You have a person in a wheelchair delivering a curling granite stone 140 feet away and they are telling it to walk. You are trying to will the stone to do what you want.”

The strategy used by wheelchair curlers is basically the the same as able-bodied curling. As David Palmer, the second for Team USA, explained: “If you have a lot of stones up front, clogging up the house, it dictates how an end will unfold. You can throw harder with more weight to clear it out – but you aren’t able to deliver a stone with as much weight from a wheelchair.”

In terms of shot selection and execution, communication between the skip and the shooter is critical – and very different than in able-bodied curling. Since able-bodied curlers can slide down the ice during the shot, the entire team works together while a shot is in progress to assess weight and line – and decide whether to sweep. In wheelchair curling, you can tell right away whether a shot is on track or not almost immediately, but you can't correct anything. So the communication before the shot is critical, to help inform the precise plan of execution. “Your weight and aim have to be more precise than able body curling because there is no sweeping,” explained Palmer. “In able-bodied curling, if you are a little off-line or light then the sweepers can help. But with wheelchair curling your shot is either there or its not. There is no forgiveness. It is more challenging than able body curling.”

Patrick McDonald added “whoever figures the ice out first is going to have the upper hand. If you can figure it out in the first or second end, you definitely have an advantage. If you can figure out the ice more quickly than the other team you can be very aggressive early on - create a deficit with the other team. “

Both McDonald and Palmer told me they are hoping and expecting to medal. Team USA competed against the same teams at the recent World Championships and they know them pretty well. Close, competitive games are expected.

So, what should you be watching for at the Paralympics? “We can compete just as well, we train just as hard. It is going to be just as exciting as the Olympics -- maybe more-so, because there is no sweeping, “ says McDonald. “These are top athletes doing their best.”

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